The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and the Heinrich Boll Foundation hosted four American and Middle Eastern experts on May 23, 2008 to present and discuss public opinion data illuminating perceptions of U.S. democracy promotion. Andrew Albertson, POMED’s Executive Director, moderated the panel featuring:
Fares Braizat, Deputy Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan; 2007 Fulbright-American APSA Congressional Fellow
Nader Said, General Director of AWRAD Research and Development; former Director of the Development Studies Program, Birzeit University
Mark Tessler, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan; author of the July 2005 article “Gauging Arab Support for Democracy” in the Journal of Democracy
David DeBartolo, Director of Dialogue Programs at the Project on Middle East Democracy; 2006-2007 Fulbright Fellow in Jordan.
Fares Braizat, Deputy Director of the Center of Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, began the panel by presenting polling data showing that Middle Easterners desire democracy – but they want to work towards it on their own, they do not want American or other outside intervention to bring democracy to them. In one poll, he said, over 50% of Jordanians strongly agreed that external intervention was an obstacle to reform in Jordan. Braizat also noted that, in general, Arabs consider democracy to mean civil liberties and political rights more than to mean economic development, justice and equality, or security and stability. In a similar vein, he noted that 45% of respondents to a recent poll stated that sacrificing human rights for security is “not at all” justifiable; only 14% said that it would be justified to a great extent, and 17% to a medium extent.
From his polling data, Braizat concluded that there is much support in the Arab world for democracy as an idea, but less support for it as a priority. That could be changed, he suggested, by making the case that democracy promotes economic development. He recommended that regardless of the speed of economic development, a functioning democratic political system should be a priority.
Mark Tessler, Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, presented data showing that Arabs are more likely to blame internal than external factors for the lack of democracy in their countries. By conducting cross-tabulation analysis of the data, Tessler found that Arabs who consider American democracy promotion to have been successful are more likely to have a positive view of the U.S. than are those who believe U.S.democracy promotion has been unsuccessful. Tessler also noted that how respondents think about political trust has a lot of explanatory power over their views on whether U.S. democracy promotion has been successful. Other factors like religion, education and age, however, have little impact on respondents’ views on the success of U.S. democracy promotion.
Nader Said, President of Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD), a leading Arab polling organization based in Ramallah, discussed the larger context in which such polling data was collected. He noted that genuine democrats in the Middle East are embarrassed because of their association with U.S. actions in the region. There is not much space for Middle East democrats, he said, between the twin fundamentalisms of Western intervention in the region and Islamic fundamentalism. Said noted that the Gaza Strip was paying the price for the Palestinians’ exercise of democracy, and that some democratic groups remain on the U.S.terrorist list. Said noted that public opinion data in the Middle East showed a commitment to democracy “if you ask the right questions,” and he recommended that democracy and economic development need to proceed simultaneously.
David DeBartolo, POMED’s Director of Dialogue Programs and a Fulbright Fellow in Jordanin 2006-07, focused on a different issue: Americans’ perceptions of U.S. democracy promotion activities. From analyzing polling data, he reached three conclusions: 1) Support for democracy promotion as such has eroded since 2006; 2) Americans are more supportive of specific, narrow policies that indirectly support democracy than they are of broad democracy promotion agendas; and 3) Americans accept only peaceful means of promoting democracy. Based on these findings, he reached three conclusions:
American rhetoric should focus on specific policies that support the development of democracy in the Middle East
American efforts should be explicitly framed as peaceful and non-military
The case must be made to the U.S. public that isolationism is not an option.
The question and answer session included insightful comments and discussion about the role of religious denomination in respondents’ views about democracy, how in practical terms the U.S.can support political dissidents without appearing to be fostering regime change, and the appropriate benchmark against which to measure contemporary support for U.S. democracy promotion.